Careers. We use that word liberally when addressing a band’s back-catalog or their future prospects. And why shouldn’t we? The progress of a band definitely bears both the intention and the longevity of careers as well as the slow accumulation of skill and momentum. However, there’s a key difference in how we relate to the work of a band and a career: not every moment in a career is expected to be earth shattering, a leap of genius or extraordinary performance. But albums are always weighed against the band at their utmost best, expected to exceed, innovate and elevate the band’s earlier work.
Should we not then assign the same outlook we do to careers to music as well? Enter Leprous. With two incredibly innovative, skilled and magisterial masterpieces under their belt, the band turn their eyes to a fifth album. What do we expect from this release? Are we once again anticipating the amazing shift from Bilateral to Coal, a shift that produced one of the most emotional and intense albums around? If we were, we are disappointed. But if we take into account that not every single point in a band’s career needs to be seminal, we will discover an evocative, compelling album that further establishes Leprous as one of the powers-that-be in progressive metal today.
If one seeks a single word to explain the relationship between The Congregation and the earlier works from Leprous, that word should be “hybrid.” While definitely leaning heavily on the vocal stylings and dark atmosphere of Coal, the album is much more expansive and scattered. In that sense, it melds the more out-there, unexpected and free-form nature of Bilateral. The result is a work which can be read as compact, oppressive and emotional while also being musically varied and experimental. Interestingly enough, the overall sound echoes Tall Poppy Syndrome to the largest extent. The overreaching eeriness, the cloistered atmosphere and the roles played by the instruments are all highly reminiscent of that iconic record, more than any of Leprous’s former works.
As with earlier works, the main weight of delivery rests once again on vocalist Einar Solberg’s shoulders. Pivotal once more to his performance is his unique style of singing. On The Congregation, just like on Coal, it is used to its full effect. More traditional tracks, traditional for Leprous in any case, like “The Flood” or “Third Law,” rely on his melodies to anchor the other instruments. However, Solberg has clearly taken a page from Ihsahn‘s book, as his high screech growls on “Rewind” echo “Contaminate Me” from Coal. In general, the vocals are the sternest link to the last album and they are once again amazingly performed.
The instruments are where things begin to change. Instead of the extolling, confined spaces of Coal, we find a much more diverse and inventive plethora of sounds. The drums are quicker and more complex on tracks like “Moon” and “Red,” coupled with intriguing work on the synths as well. “Moon” itself is perhaps the strongest track on the album, exhibiting not only all the elements we mentioned above but also thrilling guitars and bass, lending a spine and flesh to the whole thing. An interesting device is also utilized here: backing vocals that converse with the main vocal lines from the background.
All in all, The Congregation lacks the immediate shock of brilliance that infused both Bilateral and Coal. Perhaps the energies needed to once again produce such eminent and luminous creations need time to build. Conversely, it is possible that the band decided to cement their direction and focus on the sound established on Coal, possibly by even looking back at earlier records like Tall Poppy Syndrome and using the return to that nascent sound as a grounding point for their future projects. The minimalism that characterized that album and was perhaps abandoned after it might be the recurring theme for their career, leaving Bilateral and Coal as the odd ones out, rather than the other way around. Whatever the case, this album does not grip the heart or bedazzle the mind immediately, instead taking its time to endear itself on the listener.
And that’s perfectly fine. We return to our starting point and say: expecting every single step in a band’s career to be transcendent is ridiculous and unfair. Instead, some stepping stones will be just that, points in the overall vector and growth of the band. This is what The Congregation is: an intake of breath, a settling of muscles, a rest after the leap. And for that, it is excellent, both innovative and controlled, ambitious and grounded. In the future, we will reflect on it and be pleased. We will remember it for what it is, a highly versatile and well composed piece of progressive metal.
Leprous’s The Congregation gets…